Nation embraces change in wake of historic vote

By Alfred E. Tsai

Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT) suffered a landslide defeat in local elections last week on Nov. 29. The results prompted the resignation of the premier and the president’s stepping down as KMT chairman, leaving the party gravely weakened before the presidential election in 2016. Of 22 special municipalities, counties and cities, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) gained an unprecedented 13 mayoral seats, up from a previous six, while DPP-backed independent candidate Ko Wen-je won the Taipei mayoral election. The landslide electoral gains by the opposition surprised observers and are bound to alter the power balance in Taiwan’s politics and relations across the strait.

The KMT’s defeat in traditional strongholds such as Taipei and Taichung is a vote of no confidence in the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou and its failures in economic issues, despite building stronger economic ties with the Chinese mainland. The electoral results show that socioeconomic issues like stagnant wages and income inequality, instead of cross-strait relations, have become the dominant concerns for Taiwanese voters.

Since first elected in 2008, Mr. Ma has made improving Taiwan’s relationship with mainland China a primary objective. Over the past six years, the two sides have concluded some 21 agreements, including the signature Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in 2010. The 2014 local elections come after March student protests that occupied Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan to resist and put on hold the cross-strait services trade pact. Many in Taiwan have become suspicious of, if not hostile to, the mainland because of widespread concerns that the rewards of liberalized cross-strait trade are reaped only by the business elite and because increased economic reliance will only undermine Taiwan’s democracy and society. This view is especially prevalent among the younger generation.

Debate over Income Inequality The electoral pivot in Taiwan underscores worldwide attention and debate over wealth and income inequality. The income gap in Taiwan has widened in the past decade, reflecting an imbalance in wealth accumulation and aggravating the youth’s dissatisfaction and insecurity. Generally, Taiwan’s government should consider further reforming public goods like the education system, health insurance, social welfare, public infrastructure and income and capital gains tax structures to compensate for the hereditary differences in wealth and mobility and ensure more equal opportunity. In particular, enabling educational opportunities through more holistic admissions mechanisms, enhanced education in public schools and rural areas and increased subsidies for disadvantaged families can promote greater long-term equality, social motivation and national achievement.